Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


To make a vow for life, is to make oneself a slave. How can this worst of all slavery be allowed in a country in which slavery is proscribed? To promise to God by an oath, that from the age of fifteen until death we will be a Jesuit, Jacobin, or Capuchin, is to affirm that we will always think like a Capuchin, a Jacobin, or a Jesuit. It is very pleasant to promise, for a whole life, that which no man can certainly insure from night to morning!

How can governments have been such enemies to themselves, and so absurd, as to authorize citizens to alienate their liberty at an age when they are not allowed to dispose of the least portion of their fortunes? How, being convinced of the extent of this stupidity, have not the whole of the magistracy united to put an end to it?

Is it not alarming to reflect that there are more monks than soldiers? Is it possible not to be affected by the discovery of the secrets of cloisters; the turpitudes, the horrors, and the torments to which so many unhappy children are subjected, who detest the state which they have been forced to adopt, when they become men, and who beat with useless despair the chains which their weakness has imposed upon them?

I knew a young man whose parents engaged to make a Capuchin of him at fifteen years and a half old, when he desperately loved a girl very nearly of his own age. As soon as the unhappy youth had made his vow to St. Francis, the devil reminded him of the vows which he had made to his mistress, to whom he had signed a promise of marriage. At last, the devil being stronger than St. Francis, the young Capuchin left his cloister, repaired to the house of his mistress, and was told that she had entered a convent and made profession.

He flew to the convent, and asked to see her, when he was told that she had died of grief. This news deprived him of all sense, and he fell to the ground nearly lifeless. He was immediately transported to a neighboring monastery, not to afford him the necessary medical aid, but in order to procure him the blessing of extreme unction before his death, which infallibly saves the soul.

The house to which the poor fainting boy was carried, happened to be a convent of Capuchins, who charitably let him remain at the door for three hours; but at last he was recognized by one of the venerable brothers, who had seen him in the monastery to which he belonged. On this discovery, he was carried into a cell, and attention paid to recover him, in order that he might expiate, by a salutary penitence, the errors of which he had been guilty.

As soon as he had recovered strength, he was conducted, well bound, to his convent, and the following is precisely the manner in which he was treated. In the first place he was placed in a dungeon under ground, at the bottom of which was an enormous stone, to which a chain of iron was attached. To this chain he was fastened by one leg, and near him was placed a loaf of barley bread and a jug of water; after which they closed the entrance of the dungeon with a large block of stone, which covered the opening by which they had descended.

At the end of three days they withdrew him from the dungeon, in order to bring him before the criminal court of the Capuchins. They wished to know if he had any accomplices in his flight, and to oblige him to confess, applied the mode of torture employed in the convent. This preparatory torture was inflicted by cords, which bound the limbs of the patient, and made him endure a sort of rack.

After having undergone these torments, he was condemned to be imprisoned for two years in his cell, from which he was to be brought out thrice a week, in order to receive upon his naked body the discipline with iron chains.

For six months his constitution endured this punishment, from which he was at length so fortunate as to escape in consequence of a quarrel among the Capuchins, who fought with one another, and allowed the prisoner to escape during the fray.

After hiding himself for some hours, he ventured to go abroad at the decline of day, almost worn out by hunger, and scarcely able to support himself. A passing Samaritan took pity upon the poor, famished spectre, conducted him to his house, and gave him assistance. The unhappy youth himself related to me his story in the presence of his liberator. Behold here the consequence of vows!

It would be a nice point to decide, whether the horrors of passing every day among the mendicant friars are more revolting than the pernicious riches of the other orders, which reduce so many families into mendicants.

All of them have made a vow to live at our expense, and to be a burden to their country; to injure its population, and to betray both their contemporaries and posterity; and shall we suffer it?

Here is another interesting question for officers of the army: Why are monks allowed to recover one of their brethren who has enlisted for a soldier, while a captain is prevented from recovering a deserter who has turned monk?

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25